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REFUGEE SUBJECTIVITY – ‘Bare life’ and the Geographical Division of Labour

In the border country
They’ve done it all
We kept watch
As they smashed the wall

Swell Maps, “Border Country” (1980)

While trans-national institutions like the IMF, the World Bank and the WTO clear the way for capital to move freely across the globe, European States are barricading their borders as if they expected a foreign army to invade.

In most of continental Europe this means the Schengen agreement, which suspends monitoring of borders between participating countries but gives immigration authorities unprecedented powers of surveillance, search and detention everywhere in the territory, not just at frontiers and ports of entry. Britain, meanwhile, is playing its part with the 1999 asylum Act, quietly pushed through by the Labour government under cover of the ‘anti racist’ Stephen Lawrence Inquiry. (A Home Office Green Paper explicitly links the two initiatives.)
The term ‘asylum seeker’ suddenly replaced ‘refugee’ in media and parliamentary language around the time of last Tory immigration act, finally passed in 1996. Wheras ‘refugee’ implies an active attempt to escape from a threat or privation, ‘asylum seeker’ suggests a purely passive, begging creature on whose essence as a ‘genuine’ or ‘bogus’ supplicant the ‘host’ State must decide. The new law goes as far as possible towards making this myth a reality, all but eliminating asylum applicants’ ability to manage any detail of their own lives without breaking the law.

Specifically, the right to choose where to live is withdrawn: in a move designed to break up threateningly well-organised, politically active communities like North London’s Kurds, refugees are forcibly ‘dispersed’ to so-called ‘hotels’ in small towns across the country. Places like Dover, for instance, famous for its white cliffs, white population and frequent National Front activity. At the same time, the last vestiges of economic decision-making power are taken away: cash benefits are replaced by vouchers, which may only be spent on government-approved ‘essential’ items, excluding not only alcohol and cigarettes but also children’s toys and educational materials. When a voucher is not used up by the value of any purchase, supermarkets are forbidden to give change in cash. Anyone who leaves their area of residence, breaks the rules some other way or falls foul of the first stage of the asylum procedure is likely to end up among the 800 people imprisoned without charge in immigration detention centres, where they have fewer ‘rights’ than convicted inmates in regular prisons. These centres are run by private security firms such as Group 4, whose untrained, underpaid staff are well known for their casual viciousness. In the course of a failed attempt to prosecute detainees at the Campsfield centre for ‘rioting’, video evidence revealed violent racial abuse by guards to be an everyday occurrence. (In the Harmondsworth Centre near Heathrow Airport I met an Iranian detainee who was continually taunted by guards asking him how much he paid his Pakistani wife to marry him. Somehow he contained himself enough to punch the wall instead of one of their grinning faces; on doing so he was thrown into an isolation wing for ‘violent’ cases.)

The Europe-wide tightening of border controls would be impossible without plenty of State-sponsored media alarm about an imaginary ‘invasion’ of illegal migrants, the amount they cost the country, and the crime and racial tension they supposedly bring with them. (It may have become less socially acceptable among middle class liberals to blame British-born black people for racist violence against them, but the same does not apply to Chinese, West Africans or East European Roma. A collateral effect or primary purpose, depending on your point of view, of the legal and moral stigmatisation of refugees is the creation of division within ethnic minorities.) We must be absolutely clear about this: it is simply not true that the number ofrefugees is rising, or that the country can’t afford to look after them. The number of asylum applications fell between December 1999 and January 2000. Applicants can’t ‘take European jobs away’ because they’re not allowed to work (or perhaps the Evening Standard is lamenting a loss of opportunities for British graduates in illegal textile sweatshops and the prostitution sector?). Providing for asylum seekers costs the British State an estimated £500 million a year, from a total public spending budget of £336 billion. The Millennium Dome cost £808 million, three Trident Submarines cost £50 billion (100 times the cost of looking after asylum claimants), and NATO’s bombing campaign in Yugoslavia, aside from causing the number of asylum applications to rise from 1,275 in January to 4,680 in July, cost £61 billion. Figures of this kind are rarely seen in the mainstream media, perhaps because no-one familiar with them could be stupid enough to believe that the £500 millon spent on asylum applicants is the reason for the housing crisis, the ruin of the NHS and the rate of unemployment.1

The British press may not yet have sunk to the depths seen in Italy, where newspapers published a call for the army to fire at boats suspected of carrying clandestini from Eastern Europe or North Africa, and a ‘quality’ daily printed a map showing where extracomunitari, i.e. second-class humans from outside the hallowed boundaries of the EU, can be found, for the convenience of whoever might want to seek them out with molotov cocktails and baseball bats. But in our ‘multicultural’ State, mainstream media across the ‘left-right’ spectrum and even official refugee advocacy bodies2 never call into question the distinction between ‘genuine’, i.e. political, and economic or ‘bogus’ migrants. Yet the slightest contact with reality reveals these categories to be utterly meaningless.

Since the brief period after World War Two when cheap labour from the Carribbean, Asia, North Africa, Yugoslavia and Southern Italy was sought for the Northern European ‘economic miracle’, immigration law has gradually been tightened, to the point that now it is almost impossible3 to settle in the EU other than by claiming asylum. But at the same time asylum has been made more and more difficult to get. Jack Straw wants to abolish the 1951 UN convention on refugees, essentially a cold war propaganda tool, a welcome mat for supposed ‘victims of communism’. Its purpose, he complains, was never to let thousands of penniless Africans and Asians into Europe to claim the same privileges his own children enjoy. In the meantime, across the EU rights to appeal against rejected asylum claims have been cut back, legal representation limited and ever-stricter standards of proof of persecution required, as if refugees, unable in most cases even to obtain a passport, could carry certificates of having-been-tortured signed by the chief of Turkish or Iraqi secret police. This combination of factors means that expensive and dangerous border-crossing ‘services’ run by organised criminals are often the only option. In this sense Straw, who pronounced the suffocation of 58 Chinese people in an overheated truck in Dover in June ‘a stark warning’ to others considering entering Britain illegally, must be held responsible for their deaths. 4

Yet in spite of these dangers and the additional risk of imprisonment on arrival, huge numbers of people remain willing to spend whatever money they have and to leave behind family, friends, home, country, culture and language in order to get into Europe by any available means. This fact alone proves that the ‘economic’ horror they’re trying to escape from is just as real an emergency as a ‘political’ threat of incarceration, torture and ‘disappearance’. It can only be deep cynicism, shameful naivety or some grotesque fusion of the two that allows opponents of immigration to pretend that ‘politics’ and ‘the economy’ are in any way separable: economic circumstances result from politcal decisions; no journalist, politician, (or school-child, for that matter) can remain ignorant of this truism for long. In many countries, moreover, political terror follows as if ‘naturally’ from economic misery. In Nigeria and Colombia for example, ‘Structural Adjustment’ economics imposed by the IMF and World Bank on behalf of Western oil companies, whose catastrophic effects eventually drove workers and peasants to take up arms, are defended through massacres carried out by US and British-trained soldiers and death squads using European weapons. Yet UK immigration officers classify almost everyone who manages to get away from these crime scenes as an ‘economic migrant’, perhaps because they were probably already homeless and destitute before they started getting shot at.

In fact capitalists and their State servants know perfectly well that throughout human history populations have moved or been moved for ‘economic’ reasons. Relatively recent examples of this phenomenon include European colonisation of America, Afro-American slavery, British importation of Asian labour into African and Pacific colonies, the aforementioned postwar European reconstruction, and on a much less demographically significant scale, the seasonal agricultural workers who each year are shipped out quite legally from the Baltic states, housed in dormitories and paid starvation wages (riches in Latvian terms) for a few months then sent home again. The purpose of immigration controls is not to prevent all migration, but to ensure that people move according to capital’s needs, rather than their own desires. Whether as refugees or ‘economic migrants’, anyone without conspicuous tourist dollars is allowed to travel only as a passive body, liable to be moved on, forced to stay put or conscripted into sweated labour at any time. No independent initiative (i.e. political activity or simple decisions about where to live or how to spend money) is allowed. Movement superfluous to markets’ requirements means losing rights both to collective self-expression and to individual ‘lifestyle choices’.

In the age of the global market, then, national borders are a tool used by capital to dictate the movements of labour. Any violation of this principle would fundamentally threaten the capitalist order, by undermining the geographical division of labour it has depended on since the dawn of imperial expansion and slavery. The present form of this division is caricatured as ‘globalization’: industry concentrated in ‘third world’ countries where labour is cheap and subject to the blackmail of starvation, while the greatest possible quantity of capital is diverted “into the hands of banks and international circuits of money capital owing little or no alliegance to any state”.5 This arrangement, on which capitalism has staked its future, would collapse if workers were allowed to leave places of intolerable exploitation at will to go in search of something more than bare survival. One of nation-states’ main roles in the 21st century economy is to police their borders ruthlessly to ensure that this doesn’t happen.

If this form of social and spatial control is to be contested with any hope of success, if certainly will not be through an appeal to ‘human rights’. As Giorgio Agamben has observed6, the notion of ‘the rights of man’ has always been inseparable from that of ‘the citizen’, as the phrase Déclaration des droits de l’homme et du citoyen suggests. The type of citizenship implied is the ‘active’ participation in the political life of a nation-State denied in Emmanuel Sieyès’ Preliminaries to the [French] Constitution to ‘Women, at least in the present state, children, foreigners, and those who would not at all contribute to the public establishment’. While women’s ‘present state’ has changed, admitting them to at least some of citizenship’s privileges, ‘human rights’ clearly remain grounded in ‘belonging’ to a nation-State, and consequently are of no use to those who find themselves Stateless, having left the country they were born in (whether for fear of ‘martyrdom’ of as a matter of material necessity) and been refused ‘naturalizaton’ elsewhere.

The 20th century is marked by the repeated failure of national States, whether individually or grouped together as the League of Nations or UN, to deal adequately with the experience of refugees whenever they appear as a mass phenomenon, rather than, as in the cold war model, a few isolated cases. This is as true of States praised by organization such as Amnesty International for respecting ‘human rights’ as of the most infamous ‘violators’. As Hannah Arendt recognised, attention to ‘rights based on the supposed existence of a human being as such’ withers when ‘confronted…with people who have really lost every quality and every specific relation except for the pure fact of being human’7. In other words, with a multitude able (or willing) to claim citizenship neither of one State nor of another.

According to Arendt, this condition of geo-political limbo, which deprives refugees of the dubious protection afforded by the status of Men with Rights, also makes them ‘the vanguard of their peoples’. This statement seems less cryptic now than when it was first published in 1943. As the form of State apparatuses changes, their power to monitor, permeate and ultimately constitute individual and collective subjects is increasing rather than declining, but this power tends unmistakably towards total separation from the ideal being of the ‘Nation’. Consequently, alienation of ‘rights’ grounded in national-citizenship and the urgent need for another, less passive conception of subjectivity and freedom appear destined to become generalised conditions. As Agamben writes, ‘given the by now unstoppable decline of the Nation-State and the general corrosion of traditional political-juridical categories, the refugee is perhaps the only thinkable figure for the people of our time and the only category in which one may see today…the forms and limits of a coming political community.’8

The pratical contours of the universalization of ‘refugee’ status are not hard to imagine. Techniques of control introduced in the name of immigration enforcement are soon used on the unemployed and so-called ‘underclass’, then on the working proletariat, then throughout society as a whole. Racist media hysteria about ‘welfare cheats’ coming into the country was used by successive British governments to attack all benefits; now manufactured panic about ‘aggressive begging by asylum seekers’ is used as an excuse for aggressive policing tactics such as Stop & Search and ‘zero tolerance’. It can only be a matter of time before the voucher system for refugees is extended to dole and sickness benefit claimants: anyone who doubts this should take note that Sodexho Pass, the company running the system, issues ‘unemployed people who perform odd jobs’ with ‘payment vouchers’ in Belgium, and sees its core business as ‘managing welfare benefits offered by government agencies and local communities’.

The political and existential position of ‘the refugee’, and progressively of entire populations as the link between ‘State’ and ‘Nation’ dissolves, is that of what Agamben calls ‘bare life’ (vita nuda). Ancient Greek distinguished bios, ‘political’ life, from zoé, the same animal or ‘bare’ life to which Nazi law required that the individual be reduced by cancelling her national citizenship before she could be sent to die in the camps9. ‘Bare life’ refers to bodies’ mere ‘vegetative’ being, separated from the particular qualities, the social and historical attributes that constitute individual subjectivity10. Citizenship of the ‘Nation’ is the medium through which such subjectivity attains the State’s recognition. ‘Nation-State means a State that makes nativity or birth (nascita) the foundation of its own sovereignty…The fiction that is implicit here is that birth (nascita) comes into being immediately as nation, so that there may not be any difference between the two moments’11. Consequently a State no longer dependent on the myth of National territory need no more address the subjective ‘rights’ of its inhabitants than modern Nation-States did those of refugees.

Power that attempts to control undifferentiated quantities of bare life (potentially including any number of bodies or elements or conditions thereof), rather than addressing itself to citizen subjects (either individually or grouped into orders, classes, factions etc.) is referred to by Foucault (and subsequently, with a broader historical focus, by Agamben), as bio-political12. Foucault’s teaching and writing after 1977 highlighted ‘the passage from the “territorial State” to the “State of population” and the resulting increase in importance of the nation’s health and biological life as a problem of sovereign power…”What follows is a kind of bestialization of man achieved through the most sophisticated political techniques”‘13. This mode of Sovereignty, in which populations appear as purely objective matter to be administered rather than even as potential subjects of historical or social action, is evident in the withdrawal of refugees’ legal power to choose where to live or what to buy and, under the Terrorism Act, of the ‘right’ to political expression; as has already been noted, such policies may soon be extended to new groups of non-(0r ‘bare’-) citizens. It is also clearly present in the widespread transformation (see ‘Nail Bombs & Bio-Politics’, Datacide 6, and ‘New Age Policing’, Datacide 7) of social and juridical phenomena (which acknowledged the action, albeit deviant, of human subjects) into medical problems (exclusively regarding ‘objective’ syndromes and masses of flesh).

The present position of the ‘refugee’ belies recent attempts to propose ‘bio-politics’ as an alternative to class conflict as a basis for conceptualising 21st century social control. The administration of bodies as bare life suffered by ‘real’ refugees — the millions of people forced, whether for ‘political or economic’ reasons, to leave their homes indefinitiely with no guarantee of survival elsewhere — is a concentrated instance of the ‘bio-political’ management of populations practiced by trans- and sub-national State power. Yet, as is shown above, the situation in which refugees find themselves is also the direct product of a geographical division of labour on which present-day capitalism depends, a means of controlling proletarian multitudes’ movement which is an essential element precisely of bio-political population management. Trans-national State bio-power is not the supersession of capital as a social relation between classes, merely its latest historically contingent intensification. Bio-political administration of undifferentiated bodily quantities potentially represents the realisation of the eternal capitalist dream: reduction of the working (in every possible sense of the word) multitude to pure labour-power, that is, to a state of pure objectivity, with no antagonistic subjectivity, as a class or even individually. Even apparently ‘subjective’ expressions, cases of rebellion or simple deviance in unruly single bodies or groups, can be reduced to objective manifestations, symptoms of conditions transcending the patient’s experience, by the universal application of medical and other scientific categories. In fact, various combinations of cultural studies, demographics and marketing have found ways to turn these fragmentary outbursts of hostility into useful sources of profit in themselves14.

Contestation of the border control system in particular and bio-politcal administration of bare life in general certainly cannot be based on a universalization of subjectivity authorized by national-citizenship. Aside from the futility of trying to attack capital as it appears now using one of its past manifestations, and that of making a universal right out of what was always conceived as a particular privilege, even if citizenship of some State (or some utopian form of ‘world citizenship’) were bestowed on every person on earth this would only make it easier for capital to control populations’ mobility. Action, therefore must not be oriented towards conferring the blessings of citizenship on the wretched stateless masses, but towards development everywhere of refugee subjectivities. This implies collective practices that make a mockery of immigration controls, not in an attempt to graft free movement onto capital, but focusing directly on the incompatibility of the two. Thus in the most immediate perspective necessary legal work for refugees’ protection must be accompanied by highly effective non-legal forms of ‘support’ such as physically preventing deportations at airports15, systematic non co-operation with immigration officials in areas with large refugee and migrant populations, and facilitating illegal migrants’ ‘disappearance’ through assistance with squatting or extension of labour solidarity to cash-in-hand work16.

In the long term, refugee subjectivity has an inescapable ontological dimension, for it demands the breaking down of the opposition between bare or bestial and qualified or subjective life in which Agamben has shown all Western thought and politics to be grounded17. The modern Nation-State defined the political life, the subjectivity of its full citizens in opposition to the bare physical life of foreigners, criminals and madmen. The emerging form of capitalist bio-power, by contrast, seeks to deprive its multitudes (still in reality a ‘working class’, whether they identify themselves that way or not) of the dangerous property of subjectivity by eliminating the Nation-State-form underlying it, casting entire populations, as ‘refugees’, into a bare objective existence regulated by medical and other scientific categories. There can be no hope now of restoring the traditional, political form of citizen subjectivity, whether by salvaging the Nation-State or by miraculously preserving the citizen’s powers in its absence. An equally futile dream of resistance, which seems to be gaining popularity, preserves the opposition of civil/qualified/subjective to bare/bestial life but pretends to discover freedom in the latter, exalting a supposed ‘state of nature’ against society as ‘artifice’. This, paradoxically, is the presumption both of those who seek liberation in politically ‘neutral’ techno-scientific development and of ‘primitivists’ pursuing a personal myth of ‘uncivilized’, pre-social being. The only ‘artifice’ these people give up is the power to control their own lives in any way: in embracing ‘nature’ they accept a world entirely structured according to the interests of capitalist science.

Refugee subjectivity names the desperate, revolutionary imperative to dissolve the opposition between zoé and bios, bare (refugee) and political (subjective) life for the first time in over 2,000 years. The practices by which it could be constituted are still only beginning to emerge: persistent action to neutralize border controls is one, the radical transvaluation of sickness and ‘health’ by the SPK/PH(H) in Germany and now Mad Pride in Britain (despite these two groups’ mutual suspicion) may be another. Many more will have to appear if a catastrophic survival is to be averted. In its bio-political form capital comes closer than ever before to silencing, paralysing its ‘human resources’ by reducing all matter and history to (objective) nature. ‘We refugees’18 respond by incorporating the very darkest residues of ‘nature’ into an active, articulate world of (subjective) artifice.

Contact the European no-border network, which organises action ranging from airport intervention to border camps, temporarily dissolving borders such as those between Germany (EU) and Poland (non-EU) at:
The site includes useful links including the Collectif anti-expulsions, the most radical area of the French ‘sans-papiers’ movement:

1.] Thanks to the Solidarity Federation for the preceding observation and these statistics. Contact International Workers’ Association, PO Box 1681 London N8 7LE, or

2.] In a major advertising campaign last year, the Refugee Council declared that the vast majority of asylum applications are ‘genuine’, and notoriously called for ‘an open mind not an open door’. In other words, it would be perfectly all right by them to kick out, for example, a woman found to be escaping destitution after the destruction of her village by dam-building in India. The refugee council and other official ‘anti-racist’ organizations were noticeably lukewarm in their opposition to Labour’s Asylum bill. By a strange co-incidence, many key figures in these groups were offered lucrative consultancies by New Labour when it came to power.

3.] The British Commonwealth creates some interesting exceptions. Commonwealth citizens are allowed in provided they have British ancestors. In practice of course this means no to Nigerians, yes to New Zealanders (unless they happen to be Maori or Polynesian). What this policy is all about is shown up vivdly in Zimbabwe right now, where Britain is getting ready to airlift out tens of thousands of white farmers to rescue them from the reclaiing of land by the desperately poor black majority who never had the right to seek a ‘better life’ in the colonial ‘mother country’.

4.] Mr. Straw’s home address is 54 Hanover Gardens, Oval, London SE11. Why not call round for a cup of tea and a friendly chat about some of these issues?

5.] Aufheben No.1 (Autumn 1992), page 22./

6.] Giorgio Agamben, Homo Sacer , trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen, Stanford University Press, Stanford, California, 1998 / Giorgio Agamben, ‘Beyond Human Rights’, trans. Cesare Casarino, in Radical Thought in Italy, ed. Paolo Virno & Michael Hardt, University of Minnesota Press (Theory Out Of Bounds series), Minneapolis, Minnesota, 1996

7.] Hannah Arendt, Imperialism, New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1951, pages 266-98. Paraphrased in Agamben, ‘Beyond Human Rights’

8.] Agamben, ‘Beyond Human Rights’, pages159-60

9.] Agamben, ‘Beyond Human Rights’, page163

10.] In the eyes of the modern State, of course, this individual subjectivity is what makes formation of a collective subject possible.

11.] Agamben, ‘Beyond Human Rights’, page 162

12.] Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality, vol.1, trans. Robert Hurley, Penguin, Harmondsworth, UK, 1990, pages 133-145 / Agamben, Homo Sacer

13.] Foucault, Dits et ?crits, quoted by Agamben, Homo Sacer, page 3

14.] The unrivalled guide to ‘rebellion’s’ services to the market is The Baffler , (P.O. Box 378293, Chicago, Illinois, USA). A collection of the journal’s crucial early essays is available from the same publisher as Commodify Your Dissent.

15.] Obstruction of this kind has caused airlines to refuse to handle deportations in Germany, and prevented several in England last year.

16.] Early in the 1990s, for example, direct action groups’ political collaboration with Kurdish refugees in North London included provision of practical support such as help to secure large collective squats.

17.] Agamben, Homo Sacer / ‘Form of Life’, trans. Cesare Casarino, also in the Radical Thought in Italy collection.

18.] This is the title of the essay by Hannah Arendt in which she exposes the essential relation between the ‘rights of man’ and the Nation-State and points to the historical limitations of both. See Agamben, ‘Beyond Human Rights’.

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